Introduction by Molly Antopol
I love every story in Megan Kamalei Kakimoto’s spectacular debut, Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare. It’s one of those rare and exhilarating collections where each of the eleven stories is a stand-alone gem, but, read as a whole, builds an immersive and unforgettable world—a contemporary portrait of an ever-changing Hawaii. Exploring gender, race, sexuality, and the very act of storytelling, the legends that permeate Kakimoto’s Hawaii play innovatively with received notions of genre, seamlessly braiding magical realism and ancestral myths into her convincingly realistic character-driven narratives.
This is certainly true in the fierce and gorgeous “Madwomen,” which has been living with me ever since I first read it. Our narrator is a single mother wrestling with how to protect her young son while still equipping him with the requisite skills to survive in the world.
“My son holds entire worlds in his head, dusting off one imaginary catastrophe after another like tugging old books from a shelf,” the narrator tells us at the start of one of Kakimoto’s trademark sentences—swollen with wisdom and shot through with a muscular beauty.
“I tell him everything will be okay, an unconvincing argument to raise with a six-year-old.”
The women who hold the reins of Kakimoto’s stories are distinct and compelling—our protagonists range from girls to women in their 70s—and what strikes me about the narrator in “Madwomen” is how terrifying and all-consuming her love for her son is, and the massive, and sometimes destructive, impact it can have on the very people she yearns to protect the most. She’s a deeply complicated character, smart and funny and equal parts tough and vulnerable. Which, as I think of it, is a good way to describe not only this wonderful story but the breathtaking collection from which it has emerged.
– Molly Antopol
Author of The UnAmericans
Teaching My Son to Swim While I Drown
Madwomen by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto
My son, Toby, demands many stories, but it’s the story of the Madwoman he likes best. Because he is part Hawaiian and often forgets, I have made her the Madwoman in the Sea—some foolish attempt to right him with his ‘āina.
I tuck my son into the swaddle of his trundle bed, cup the tender tissue of his cheek, which glows the shade of spoiled milk.
Legend claims Her as its own manic invention—brilliant, beautiful, disillusioned, a little lonely. They say She is a beguiling young thing with tendrils of seaweed for hair and two rows of cuspate teeth like upturned blades wedged in perpetually bleeding gums. Her closest companion is the inimitable tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier; Her lover is the spindly wana concealed in the dark coral landscape. She emerges often and at random; a harbinger of death and storms, of illicit activity, of doom. A product of young boys who refuse to brush their teeth before bedtime, boys who defy their mothers or speak ill of their absent fathers.
He demands I slow down and use smaller words. But this is my tale to tell, and I will tell it as I please.
The Madwoman in the Sea bears twelve eyes stippled over a tawny face. She is always watching; when one eye closes, eleven eyes peel open to take notes. For centuries, surfers and divers have composed wild narratives of taming the Madwoman with a soft kiss on her forked tail, which is dressed in millions of diamond scales, each one a dagger poised to slay. Legend claims if you survive this kiss of death, you have not only tamed the Madwoman, but you have also achieved immortality.
(I don’t know where I come up with these lies.)
Creeping along the turquoise undertow, She is all tempest and commotion, an effulgent vapor of light that lures not only miniature fish but also unsuspecting men and children—the very surfers and divers who proclaim with jolly-happy guts to have softened Her spirit. She flashes her beam of light so that it dances along the water’s crystalline surface, watching, waiting, waiting longer. They are so startled by Her speed and agility, the poor bastards never stand a chance.
“Bastards is a bad word,” he says.
“Sorry.” I think: When you meet the Madwoman in the Sea, you’ll understand, too.
This is the tale I tell my son, not only to put him to bed but also as we pace the Diamond Head shoreline, the shallow waters teeming with native coral and fish. He runs his hand through the warm water after I warn him not to, pointing to the red flag flapping just beyond the lifeguard towers, and when the Portuguese man o’ war he sifts through his fingers balloons his hand with its venom, I tell him this is the work of the Madwoman in the Sea, punishing the boy who should have listened to his mother, the boy who is simply no good at all.
The Tale of the Madwoman in the Sea still startles me even as I hear the words spill over my tongue like bile—where do I come up with these lies? We spend half an hour, an hour, every morning, lost in our discourse of the mysterious and atrocious Madwoman, and then an engine outside sputters, and I realize he’s missed the bus.
“Fuck,” I say. My son tells me I’ve said a bad word, as if I’ve never once considered the sound of my own voice. I ignore him, say “fuck” again, softer this time. He waves his arms over his head in giant parabolas. I wedge his too-big feet into his too-tiny sneakers and tug a clean shirt over his head. His hair is feathery, blond and unkempt, like his father’s. As are his thin lips, the dimpled arch of his nose, his cleft chin, the freckles peppering his round keiki cheeks. But his eyes are mine, these terrifying gray orbs holding more promise than one could ever hope to live up to. He’s certainly a disappointing child, but he’s mine, his eyes are mine, I love him dearly.
When we miss the bus, I am responsible. Toby sniffles a little, already resentful of all the ways his friends will cultivate fond memories in his absence, so I am responsible for his distress, just as I am responsible for easing his fears. My son holds entire worlds in his head, dusting off one imaginary catastrophe after another like tugging old books from a shelf. I tell him everything will be okay, an unconvincing argument to raise with a six-year-old. When I fail, I pinch his nose softly, run my thumb along his dimpled chin, smother him with butterfly kisses, call him my strong little warrior, my brave kolohe child. The kolohe, too, he inherited from his father and not from me, though the man is a haole, and probably has no idea what kolohe means.
Toby says kolohe like a haole—ka-low-hay—so I’m slowly retraining his inherent linguistic ills, pulling his father’s spoiled pronunciations from his mouth and dipping him slowly into the cooler, more forgiving waters of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, the kanaka maoli tongue. Together we press our palms to our cheeks as we practice elongating our vowels, then lifting the backs of our fingers just under our chins to tighten our i’s as we repeat, lani . . . lani . . . lani . . . lani, until we’re both cackling through our teeth and I’ve fixed him. It’s remarkable, really, the control we have over every unturned stone of our children’s potential.
We rally together, me and Toby, because the bus probably reached the school at this point and Toby is poised to receive his third detention slip of the month on account of tardiness, which means I have failed at a fundamental level to provide my son with proper parental care. That’s the secret message hidden in the cordially written memo from his private school I can’t afford, yet the place I continue depositing him late morning after late morning, a cycle of failures that anchors me, me and Toby both, in its predictable cadence. The detention slip is somewhere in my purse. For some women the contents of their bags are a discreet matter, and they go to great lengths to conceal their cigarettes, their silicone finger vibrators, and all the loose trinkets their spouses advised them not to purchase. Mine is no such bag. Dump it facedown on the floor and all you’ll find are those crumpled pink memos detailing my failures as a parent and also a bottle of Lorazepam, just a few 100 milligram tablets rattling around the plastic casing.
I chase Toby around the house in a friendly dash to the door, and I think about how my greatest failure is that I willingly stepped into the role of parent in the first place without bothering to ask myself or anyone else around me the simple question, How do I go on? I’d assumed going on was just a given, rather than a daily battle ending in punctuating headaches, a dry throat, tears seeping down my face like lazy rivers.
They say the moment you see your baby for the first time makes all the pain and suffering of childbirth worthwhile. After I gave what the doctors called a traumatic birth to Toby, I held him in my arms and loved him instantly, though he resembled an undercooked chicken, all slick and gelatinous and stripped of its beautiful feathers. The drive from our West O‘ahu compound to his private school in Honolulu is an hour-long expedition through the bleakest junctions of meager living and also a daily reminder of my poor decisions. For the vast sweep of families living on the island’s leeward bend, their homes were never a choice. The lilting lānai and sun-bleached exteriors and grime percolating through the wet walls, all this was inherited and no one had any say in the matter. But our story was different, because the moment my husband and I became something, I knew the haole in his blood needed to be diluted, and I was convinced the only way to do so was to rinse it in leeward living. We would be the triumphant melting-pot couple, too good for the comforts of downtown Honolulu. We would buy a shitty plot of arid West O‘ahu land and make it our home.
I was far too young to be married, far too young then to know haole is a stain that never really washes off.
Now my husband is gone, and only me and Toby suffer the consequences of my youthful optimism. We glance out the window and watch the waves unfolding like an old scroll along the waters of Pōka‘ī Bay, and when Toby asks me if She’s there, I say yes. We inch to a crawl somewhere along old Farrington Highway, just on the perimeter of a sleepy plantation town where the Wai‘anae Range surges overhead, an eroded backdrop to a history recited only by dead tongues. The traffic plods forward. I pass the time lost in my own head, and Toby passes the time manufacturing fart sounds with his armpit and cupped palm. His best friend, Justin, taught him. Justin’s mother, Phoebe, is high-class, a senior account exec at a marketing firm in downtown Honolulu who dons a short, slitted skirt to meet with local celebrities and help them with their image. Toby especially likes her because she feeds the boys homemade banana pudding in these gorgeous crystal chalices after school. Phoebe’s saved my ass too many times to count, giving Toby rides and keeping him entertained when I can’t get away from my shifts at the hotel. What I can’t get past, though, aside from her son’s penchant for making his body an instrument of flatulence, is her face’s downward cast when I finally retrieve my son, how even when I’m doing everything right, her eyes still blink glassy with condolences.
“For my birthday, I want a big cupcake tower the size of that!” Toby chews the stiff nylon webbing of his seat belt and points to the Wai‘anae Range. I ask him what flavor of enormous cupcake he’d like, and he screams, “TIRAMISU” in my ear.
“You don’t even know what tiramisu is,” I say, massaging my temples. Every bone and joint in my body is ringing.
“Yeah, I do. Justin had tiramisu for his birthday last month, and that’s what I want for mine.”
The car ahead of us is a sleek cherry Tesla that roves silently forward. Teslas, what a tacky monstrosity.
I tell him, “Tiramisu has alcohol in it. That’s a no-no, remember?”
But he just kicks at the passenger seat until I raise my voice and we both stop talking. In two weeks, Toby will turn seven, which on some days means he will finally stop pissing the bed and I can retire his pull-ups to the closet in the carport, along with the expensive roller skates he’s too chicken to try and all his terrible artwork. Mostly it means his father has been gone for three years, and for this absence I have no one to blame but myself. And maybe the Madwoman in the Sea.
I deliver Toby to the school. The moment his feet hit the parking lot pavement, he is off, a heedless little runt infected with the zoomies. He sprints to the outdoor corridor where his pals gather around a towering lattice wall, night-blooming cereus coiling through the wooden panels. Draped over his back is the fraying JanSport bag my own mother bought me when I was in grade school. But Toby was born two months premature, and the bag is a preposterous weight bearing down on his scrawny limbs. My mind scribbles a note: buy milk. Milk builds strong bones. Against the lattice, Justin Wong folds over himself to exhibit an impressive handstand, pointing his white Nikes toward the limpid sky. The boys ooh and ahh. One of the little shits pretends to nudge him off balance. Another kid, named Hugh Livingston, bends over and shakes his head of feathery blond hair between his legs. I watch Toby slip a hand through the belted waistline of his uniform khakis and massage his fist in front of his groin, a spastic forward and backward motion that takes me quite some time to recognize as my soon-to-be-seven-year-old son mimicking the act of masturbating. He pretends to jerk off until the bell rings, and the boys laugh and laugh.
Here’s something else you must know about the Madwoman in the Sea: She is too capable to fail. Don’t mistake this as a claim of Her perfection, for She is far from perfect. But better than perfection is proficiency, which the Madwoman bears in swells.
“I don’t know what proficiency is,” Toby whines. I shush him. “Hush now; it’s not important.”
Her first sighting: under a pier, surging the tide with flicks of Her forked tail. Striped manini and a family of lau‘ipala skim Her pearlescent skin as they glide around Her in loping, concentric rings. She dives underwater and waves to a collection of toxic wana wedged in the shallow reef slope, resting their spindly limbs until the moon surges overhead and they can comb the reef for algae. She passes parrotfish and rays, but She does not spring, knowing full well what She is waiting for.
The first man who finds Her wears rubber flippers and a fool’s grin, like nothing bad has ever happened to him. He’s snorkeling in a protected marine sanctuary, and with an indelicate hand, he wields a pole for spearfishing, taking infrequent shots and jabs at the pointed kihikihi and resplendent family of uhu‘ahu‘ula, the sheen of their scales suspended like targets in an otherwise muted sea. The man is a hunter; determined, distracted. I don’t need to tell you he’s a haole. Doesn’t see the Madwoman tracking him from behind the blossom of nude finger corals just a few meters off. Stealth, in fact, is just one pillar of Her proficiency, and She springs for him first not with the clutches of Her fingers, or the crack of Her barbed tail, but with Her voice. In a peculiarly elucidated melody, She calls to him underwater, and when he spins around, the man meets Her wicked cuspate grin and Her eyes, all twelve of them fixed and unblinking and famished.
“She’s a bad guy,” accuses Toby.
Always I am correcting him: She is a woman.
It is at this point in the story when the man negotiates facts. With his fellow spearfishers, his surf buddies, he doesn’t like to bring up the instant panic that gripped his belly like a big hand, or the drizzle of piss in his wake. He certainly doesn’t mention he swung at the Madwoman with his spear, a measly plastic thing, or that with a single swipe of Her hand, the spear was shredded to ribbons. He won’t tell them how fast he paddled back to shore, that when he reached the beach, he buried the plastic tatters in the sand, that he bought a cheap one from Walmart a week later, because what deplorable piece of shit deserves a market-grade spear?
After the first sighting, the Madwoman develops a taste for obtuse men and their depressive children. She combs through finger corals, weaves in and out of lobe crests teeming with disease as She pursues divers and snorklers with the precision of a marine huntress. Soured by the first man’s clumsy escape, She makes a habit of taking something away from the ones who follow. She claws skin cells and stores them under Her sharp nails. Strips them of their rashguard sleeves, a pant leg from their ratty board shorts. From the first child, She shears a thicket of soft fibers tinted blond from years passed under the sun.
With a tight grip, I hold a cluster of Toby’s own sun-bleached mop in my hand, pretend to clip it with imaginary finger scissors. He cries into his pillow, leaving a smattering of wet spots on the fabric.
Toby’s father used to smile like nothing bad had ever happened to him. It drove me crazy. So one night, after a few glasses of wine, I told Toby’s father about the Madwoman in the Sea. It’s true I was lolling around the house, my tongue an inflated balloon in my mouth and my better judgment diving into the turbulent sea. His father watched me drink copiously that evening, a sober bystander biding his time until my next inevitable slip-up. He was awful that way, always sitting in silent anticipation of my next misstep and smiling. That grin. I’ll show you.
As for the wine, he refused liquor of all types. Once, I told Toby his father was a teetotaler, for I’d long been fond of the word, and we spent the next two weeks eating dinner around a cheap veneer dining table listening to our three-year-old son recite fabricated words that rhymed with teetotaler.
I’d said, “Peepolar is not a word.”
His father had said, “Why can’t you just play along for once?”
This night in particular was a bad one. Toby’d long fallen asleep among the blankets surging over his trundle bed, and his father and I were alone. We didn’t do so well alone anymore. His father cherished quiet, while I was never happy unless I’d kindled something afire. He’d said once that our relationship lacked synergy, but I think we were both just too lonely to spend any meaningful time with each other.
He didn’t believe me when I first spoke of the Madwoman. Claimed only a psychopath would concoct a tale so grisly in the hopes of delighting her own child. I did a little dance on my tiptoes and splayed out my arms and said, “Ta-da!” in a way that made him flinch and then admit that he no longer loved me, he feared me. I followed him around the house as he prepared for sleep and told him the Madwoman would drown him beneath the weight of her clipped tail, that he’d sink to the ocean floor like a tiny pebble plucked from the shore. I stumbled up the stairs, let something slip between my fingers, shattered my wineglass on the top landing.
“You’re just so different,” he claimed, collecting the shards of glass into a little pool so that I wouldn’t hurt myself. I brought him a plastic trash bag. Kneeling down to help, I hurt myself. The blood made it seem like the stakes had never been so high.
He packed his things a few weeks later. I asked, “What about Toby?” Toby, god, he was still a toddler! Little boys need their fathers.
Toby’s father insisted he would continue to be the very best father he could be. It was me he was leaving, not Toby. Yet Toby and I both watched him withdraw from our family with only a small daypack, we peered out from the driveway until not even a blink of his car was left in the distance. For months I harangued him over the phone, insisting we exhaust all our options, we can do this, we can be a family. Here I was, working double shifts at an extravagant resort that serves fleshy, famished tourists swallowed by the elastic of their bathing suits, huddling in the employee bathroom trying to talk sense into my former husband. My son’s father. This white man. I told him I would try to be better, but he insisted I was doing everything I could. I had no idea what he meant.
For a while, he called Toby before bed every single night, the unequivocal love of a father. When he stopped calling so frequently, it’d felt somehow like my fault.
I no longer love you, I fear you. Still I loved him, his receeding hairline and pockmarked skin and the muted way he moved through the world as though his presence were an inconvenience to be suffered by the poor souls in his path. I loved his exacting scrutiny, and the curious way his jaw would lower ever so slightly when he was concentrating on his research. Toby’s father was a mathematician, a life calculated according to the quiet order of numerals. When Toby was born, I’d sneak into the hall late at night to watch his father cradle him in wobbly arms, arms that weren’t designed to hold delicate things, arms that sought to accommodate this new reality sprung upon him. The truth was splayed out before me in a rocking chair before I could even name it, certain that none of this would last.
He may have feared me, but what I feared most was the explicit way Toby had embodied his father, and how he looked nothing like me. Their resemblance was uncanny, and for years after his birth, I’d pass long after- noons on the sofa with Toby’s paternal grandmother, entertaining her elation as she arranged old photos of Toby’s father on the coffee table, plucked an arbitrary print as though she’d just won the lottery, wielded the thing intimately in my face as she claimed their impossible likeness. As if I didn’t already know. As if I didn’t lie beside the identical twins each night, considering their every wrinkle and cleft chin and blossom of freckles and all their light hair. She was immensely proud, and I was a mother to a hapa-haole son with a haole husband living in the shambles of leeward O‘ahu, where everyone assumed we were in the military. Just another white couple cultivating roots on Hawaiian land.
So maybe Toby’s father and I didn’t love our son in the same way. But the worst part of it all was his father’s abject refusal to acknowledge how sorely I did love him, how when Toby was born premature I cried for twenty hours straight, begging the night nurse not to stow him away in some plastic box, begging her to keep him nestled here in my arms, sobbing and shriveled and safe, with me.
But the night nurse, she took him. Locked him away in the NICU, then when I screamed sedated me with a significant dose of morphine. I relaxed. His father drove fifteen miles west to spend the night in our home rather than crunched in a disfigured recliner beside my hospital bed. Toby wilted away in the tundra of the NICU. Amid the midnight purr and whirl of persistent hospital monitors, I flipped through the same twelve channels on the television and watched beautiful, elegant white people dance and eat and cook and fall in love. A handsome stranger held a woman by her waist as he puffed on a cigar. A chef dutifully narrated the trick to julienne a carrot, then invited someone from the live audience to come onstage and practice. Her blade turned on its side resembled the surface of the ocean where, submerged, something unborn and truly heinous murmurs. If Toby lives, I’d told myself, I will teach my son not to fear the ocean. I will teach him to think audacious thoughts and act with insolence. It doesn’t help to move through the world with timorous steps. If my son lives, he will not be a numbers boy. I will paddle him to the outside breaks and show him what it’s like to swim for your life.
Toby’s father is a good man, perhaps a better man than our son will be. He may have left, but he left me the house, his car, the quilted bedspread I adored, a freezer full of prepared meals, our son. On weekends when it was his turn to father, he taught Toby how to recover from a toppled bike, taught him how to hold a knife while curling his fingers around the skin of a cucumber to avoid slicing off his hand. He supervised soccer games and chauffeured him to and from preschool classes. In the first months of Toby’s life, our baby secured firmly in the back seat of the car, he circled the perimeter of our tiny island for hours and hours, if only to show our son what it meant to attend to a world stained with luminescence, a world that glows. What, then, ultimately drives a good man away from his family? Not power or fame, lust or cowardice, ennui or opportunity. A Madwoman, that’s who.
The son I bore prances through the house like a stotting gazelle, weaving around tables, desks, floor lamps, chairs, stools, swelling the space with the charisma uniquely possessed by a six-going-on-seven-year-old. A fetus. Nothing more than gaunt bones and a clumsy spring in his step. I curl my fingers around the perspiring neck of a Kirin, and when I ask Toby where he learned to make that motion, the one with his hand moving up and down in his pants, he lies.
“The Madwoman,” he insists. “She showed me how.”
I feel the tops of my ears bloom a fiery red like the tip of an iron poker. This curious rage, it always manifests itself in the strangest of places. “That’s not true, Tobs. Remember what I told you about little boys who lie?”
“The Madwoman gets them.”
The bottle I’m clutching feels smooth along its feminine contours, and when I peel my fingers from the glass, drops of condensation prickle my lap. I blink hard, and when I open my eyes, Toby has cornered a baby moth behind the end table, his tiny hands poised to attack.
“Don’t!” I shriek.
He stares at me bug-eyed, as though I’ve misplaced my manners, or my mind.
“Remember what I told you? We don’t kill moths in this house.”
“Why not? They’re bugs.” Then his whole face crunches inward. “They’re disgusting.”
“They’re our ancestors. This is how your grandparents and great-grandparents and everyone who came before you pays us a visit.”
“Gross!” Now his whole face is a plane of punctured tin. “I don’t care.”
He slaps at the wall but is too slow, and the moth flies skyward, ascending to a higher perch.
Toby whimpers and moans; I hold him in my arms until we’re both shaking.
Then Toby is whining for dinner, and the kitchen is the only room in which I am needed. My hands go weeding through the refrigerator, searching for food I haven’t let spoil. Toby sits cross-legged on the floor then springs around again, making those hand-underarm fart sounds, and I don’t understand him, don’t know how to talk to him. Perhaps it’s normal for kids to lie and sprint and pretend to jerk off in front of their friends, and I am simply too antiquated to meet him halfway. Perhaps it’s as his father said, Why can’t you just play along for once? I flip frozen veggie patties bitten by frost on their crisp ends, the hibachi drafting thick fumes through the kitchen, the living room. The smoke detector deploys, a resounding clamor that quiets only when I drag our table fan into the kitchen and cast its rotating blades toward the alarm. Fucking piece-of-shit technology, stupid goddamn house. Toby presses his palms to his ears and grimaces. The alarm stops. I think about how I insisted we move here, the tenements of leeward O‘ahu seductive in their strange deformities. Years later and still I was learning proximity to the slums and the sea would in no way imbue the men I loved most with the kuleana of my own ancestry; no matter where we dropped our anchor, Toby would always be hapa, just as his father would always be haole. Three different people, and none of us really belonging here.
We settle in for dinner. I spoon wilted steamed spinach and a heap of white rice and a burnt veggie burger on a paper plate and sprinkle the dish with a few shriveled carrot sticks. I eat my veggie burger slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise and listen to Toby brag about the mango sticky rice Phoebe Wong served the boys today after school, and I pierce a carrot stick with the tines of my fork and think, Goddamn sea witch, goddamn ocean cunt. I stare at Toby and the braid of spinach unfurling over his bottom lip. Soon he will grow older and massage gel in his hair and his old shoes will compress his feet and his pants will sag past his taut hips. Observing friends like Justin Wong and Hugh Livingstone, he will cultivate a new and foreign language that’s bound to clash with my own grasp of speech, and we will argue. We’ll argue about curfews and girls and grades and his gross inability to wipe scum from the surface of our dishware, and eventually he, too, will no longer love me, he’ll fear me, and then I’ll be alone again.
I think, As it should be.
Also, I am afraid.
For dessert, I hand him a pint of his favorite rocky-road ice cream and a clean spoon and encourage him to go to town. Together we curl up on the sofa, and I lay a soft Hawaiian quilt over Toby’s lap and knit a tress of his wispy hair between my fingers while an old Jason Bourne film animates from the television. For a while I proposed Pixar movies, shows on the Disney Channel, PAW Patrol and that Irish animated series with the child veterinarian who nurses anthropomorphic toys. None of it took. But Matt Damon scaling buildings as a CIA assassin riddled with amnesia? This shit captivates Toby like nothing else.
I drift off slowly, one finger spun around my son’s soft curls. Still drinking from a sippy cup, Toby reclines his head against my rib cage, compressing into all the doughy parts I haven’t bothered to condition since well before his father left. I kiss the tiny swirl at the top of his head, kiss his fluttery little eyelashes. My perfect sweet, awful, hapa, kolohe little boy. He clings both hands around his sippy cup, yet I feel the weight of his arms cinch all around me, collapsing into me, and it is a beautiful and bloodcurdling weight that sinks me into slumber.
Another conversation between a mother and son: Setting: the car.
Temperature: 91 degrees, 120 percent humidity.
Mood: tepid, with hints of significant room for improvement.
Topic: preferred guests to attend a seventh birthday, and also cookies.
“But I had cookies last week in the morning at Justin’s!” he cries, hurling his boy feet against the back of the passenger’s seat. Thump, and again.
“You cut that out,” she snaps. “And I don’t care if you had them before, it’s too early for cookies. Period. Now let’s think about your party for a minute. Do you know which of the kids from school you want to invite?”
“I want lemon wafers.”
“I don’t care. Answer my question.”
He huffs. “I dunno. I guess Justin and Hugh, and Kepa and Ryder and maybe Lopaka, but he was sorta making fun of me yesterday.”
“Not knowing how to swim. He said only haoles and popolos can’t swim.”
She sucks air through her teeth. “I don’t want you saying those words, Tobs. I told you that before.”
“Sorry. I forgot.”
“I mean popolo. Don’t use that word, with your friends or with me. Haole is whatever.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“And that’s not even true. Shit.” She flicks on her left blinker, maneuvers a quick U-turn.
“That’s a bad word,” he says softly.
She sighs. “Sorry. But wait, can we go back to the swimming thing? You want to learn how to swim? I thought you were afraid of the ocean.”
“I’m not afraid of nothing.” He crosses his arms. “I can teach you, you know.”
“I don’t want you, I want swimming class.” “I’m a really good swimmer—”
“Kainoa and Justin and Ryder all take swimming class together. They get to go for shave ice after, too. It’s a friend thing.”
She chuckles. “Well if it’s a friend thing. Though who knows how much this friend thing is gonna cost—oh shit.” She crushes her foot against the brake pedal, the car squealing to a steady crawl.
“That’s a bad word.”
“Sorry. No one knows how to drive in this goddamn city. Baby, this is why we live where we live, okay?”
“I like the city. Justin has a koi pond in his front yard.
And Hugh has a pool.”
“Why should that matter? You don’t even know how to swim.”
When I really want to freak out my son, I tell him something else legend claims: the Madwoman takes the first child when his back is turned to the water. It’s the worst mistake you can make when you’re submerged waist-deep in an ecosystem that doesn’t belong to you.
But the boy is tender, no shining paragons of parent- hood to speak of. He learns mostly by observing others, and when a fellow keiki rolling around in the shallows faces the shoreline, the boy turns to follow suit.
Just a few seconds. The Madwoman in the Sea needs only a few seconds to execute Her ploy, which really is one of power. It is power that propels Her forward, through surging currents that initially restrain Her, inhibit Her charge toward the unsuspecting boy until Her resistance is too much to bear and the waves see Her for who She really is—a crazy fucking madwoman who will always get what she wants.
Toby is livid. “That’s a really bad word!”
I smooth out his baby hairs and shush him.
As She approaches the boy, the water undulates choppily, and a steady hum of sound lapses through the current—the tune that drew the first man to Her, a rousing melody the boy is too young to deem a danger. In fact, the sound reminds him of his grandmother, and the songs she would sing to him late at night while crouched over his bedside. Before she died. This is what the boy is thinking about when his ankle is held hostage by the barbed clutches of something mysterious, something he cannot see.
Suddenly, the boy is overturned. A strong undercurrent flips him on his back and something is still clutching his ankle, something heinous, as he scuffles with the formless water and all its fury. For seconds his nostrils surface, then are tugged back down into the waterworld along with his flailing arms, kicking legs, tufts of unwashed hair, pelvis that pulses almost intuitively to the strange and subdued melody. He doesn’t think, doesn’t really see Her until he does.
The tail, a venomous serpent studded with millions of tiny blades; twelve eyes peering into his own eyes and soul and gut.
There’s no time to sound any alarms, and anyway, the boy has no parents who truly love him in a profound, maddening way, who will give rise to his salvation. Just a few more seconds, he thinks, kicking his legs furiously in an impossible dash to the translucent ceiling of water that is within reach, for he can see it! The soft shimmer of a world that appeared mostly dull and decayed for the few years he spent trampling it until now. Just a few more seconds, he thinks with each futile kick. A few more seconds until I can breathe again, until I can save myself.
The Madwoman in the Sea cackles, a sound that bears no difference to the rousing melody—it is the only sound She knows.
When I cackle, my son wraps one hand over my mouth and tells me to hush, because I’m upsetting him.
Sure, the Diamond Head waters are all good and fine for frolicking, and no one ever turned up their nose to an afternoon submerged in the familiar warmth of Waikīkī Beach, but teaching a child how to swim requires a tranquil privacy one can find only on the North Shore, so this is where we go.
The drive over, and Toby seems excited, if slightly anxious. He wears his inflated arm floaties as accessories even though I’ve reminded him floatation devices will not be allowed once we enter the water, and he keeps cracking his jaw, unhinging his lips as he opens and closes his mouth to the distractive rhythmic clicking while we drive in otherwise silence. It’s a curious habit, and while I’m certain the violent act itself cannot be good for his oral health, I say nothing. I change lanes and think of how Toby’s father no longer loves me, he fears me, even though I’m the one sticking around long enough to teach our hapa child how to swim for his life. This child who doesn’t even look like me, who may not even enjoy my company as much as he enjoys his absent father’s. We take the H-2, weaving through forest beds of acacia and canopies of persimmon trees that blur as an emerald sweep through the glass of the speeding car. When we reach Waialua, the towering acacias give way to the subdued graves of former sugarcane and pineapple plantations, now long-fallow fields in the clutches of wealthy developers and gentleman’s farm estates. Behind the fields, the backside of the eroded Wai‘anae Range rises up to greet us.
I point out the mountain range, explaining that our home is situated on the foothills just over and beyond the tall summit. But Toby isn’t listening. He sucks on the seat belt’s stiff nylon and gapes at his feet dangling from the booster. There is no way to relieve his fear of the ocean without seeing him as a small child I adore deep in my gut and therefore am inclined to protect, so I continue driving the Kam Highway bend through Kahuku until the turquoise bowl of Kawela Bay looms westward in our window and I pull over and park along the side of the road.
Jostling a child in and out of a car and then across a single-lane highway burdened with intermittent traffic is no easy feat. Like always, I do my best, and under the bristling heat of late fall we successfully navigate the highway barrier and all we lose is an arm float.
“Forget it,” I tell him on the beach as we collect our slippers to walk through the sand. “We won’t need floaties anyway. We’re gonna be big kids and stay afloat on our own, right?”
Toby nods then scampers away, spellbound in a vigorous state that emerges only when broiling humidity meets the boundless expanse of softened North Shore sand. The break I’ve chosen is neither crowded nor well known; it is a private lull in the chaos of tourism and crowds that soothes my soul just padding along the springy carpet of sand. Freed from the constraints of the floaties and the car seat, Toby is delighted. I chase him in careening circles while we kick up debris behind our heels and collapse in a cushioned bed of wet sand. Foamy whitewater laps at our splayed legs, and Toby bounds away. A thin scar like a winding loop of string is still stitched across his left palm from his encounter with the Portuguese man o’ war, but I don’t feel sorry for him. I watch him draw organic shapes in the sand with his little kid toes and mostly feel like I will never again experience this moment, how as soon as I print it in my mind, the material, corporeal thing has already passed, and how curiously sad this discovery weighs on me.
“You ready, bud?” I ask, brushing sand from my knees and peeling my shorts over my hips. Tube of sunscreen in my hand, and Toby wears me down with his ceaseless sprinting away, the flutter in his youthful steps and the breezy way he meanders the shoreline with no acknowledgement of my continual efforts to safe- guard his life. I shake my head, yank him by the hem of his board shorts. “Melanoma, do you want melanoma?” I scream, though of course he doesn’t understand the question. He crumples into a little bug ball on the sand. He says my name—Mom—over and over again: “Mom, I’m a little bug ball! Uh itty-bitty bug ball! I’m a bug ball, Mom!” I bite the swollen insides of my cheeks and say, “Nice job, buddy, really nice job.”
Once submerged in the chilly water, though, neither of us is a little bug ball, and especially not Toby, who flounders easily, complains incessantly of exhaustion and heatstroke even though I’m the one kicking my legs furiously to keep us afloat and also he doesn’t know what heatstroke is—probably another life lesson from Justin Wong. I let the current, stronger than I’d expected on such a windless day, steer us where it wills, for there is no rush, we both have so much time. Toby braids his fingers together and wraps them around my neck with force. I tell him, “Ow, Tobs, lighter touch, please. That hurts.” A slight draft drifts us shoreward, and Toby clings tighter. I feel the bruises bloom along my neck without witnessing the injury firsthand, which is the best way I can describe being a mother.
“Water’s cold, Mama. It’s too cold.” Along with his fingers, Toby’s legs wrap my waist like tentacles. I flutter my arms through the water and kick my feet, and somehow we stay upright, me and my son. “It’s cold and I hate this. I don’t, really don’t wanna do it.” Toby starts to groan.
“Don’t worry, bud. You’re fine. We’re fine. It’s cold now, but it’ll get warmer, okay?”
Toby asks, “Are we swimming?”
I say, “Not yet.”
“How do you know when you’re swimming?”
I tell him he’s swimming when he can kick his feet and move his arms and stay afloat without my help. He scrunches his nose, and a lick of saltwater laps at his face. “I got water in my nose!” he shrieks. His hold on my neck slackens, and he bolts upright as if jolted from a terrible nightmare. It confounds me, this clench of panic while bathing in the plenary bliss of the mountains and the sea. Then again, he is his father’s son. Identical as printer copies.
I take great care to carry him farther through the ocean without triggering his attention; it’s the only way we’ll make it anywhere, really. We move as one unit over soft, undulating waves, the whitewater hissing its descent behind us.
“You ready to practice swimming?” I ask him, and over and over again, his answer is no.
“You know I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you. All you need to do is let go and practice doggy paddling. Remember how we practice in the tub? Kick your legs and move your arms back and forth, like you’re dancing. You’ll be fine.”
A strong, briny mist burrows its way through our nostrils, and a wave careens then breaks just a few feet away from our bobbing bodies. Toby stiffens.
“I wanna go back,” he says, quietly at first, a near whisper, and then again, louder and much louder. “I wanna go back, I wanna go back to the beach. I don’t wanna do this, I wanna go back.” Never, not once, does he say please.
I don’t know why this omission tunnels fury through my blood.
I think, My stubborn, lazy, kolohe, pathetic little child. How did I ever tolerate you? I think his existence is the only thing that anchors my feet to the ground every morning. His fingers are claws penetrating my neck, but then it is me with the cuspate teeth, me with the twelve eyes and tanned skin and forked razor tail and all the spiraled seaweed hair floating around us like a veil. Just as it is my curious melody that catches him in the snarls of my trap, the tune that reassures him over and over again: Everything will be fine, you can trust me, I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you, I promise. His muscles relax, his grip goes limp.
I release him.
But something about his attempt to swim is faulty, though I can’t distinguish a single point of error; rather, it’s more a cluster of misguided motions that beat the energy from his baby bones yet tug him downward, downward toward the chilly and unnavigable ocean floor. His hands and legs jerk sporadically as though gripped by a seizure, and flecks of saltwater splash me in the face. The brine webs my eyes ruby red. I think, We are most beautiful here, where no one can see us and no one can ever, ever find us. Then Toby’s moppy blond hair emerges from the water, his nostrils and pruned lips surface, and he spouts cries, pleas, promises, apologies, lies. He begs me to help him. But I am helping him, I tell myself as I wade a few paces back, my arms and legs pulsing naturally, like magic. I’m helping him swim for his life, and this is the only way either of us will ever learn.
Just a few more seconds, buddy, I tell him this tale until I, myself, believe it. Just a few more seconds and you’ll be swimming just like me.